For a movie that’s almost as old as I am and features many a flat tops and pastel vests, “House Party” is a movie that’s barely aged. In fact, it’s a movie that so many studios have tried to duplicate but never quite have captured the same magic and enthusiasm. There’s just something about “House Party” that’s kept it a vessel of pop culture, hip hop, and comedy that was shifting from the eighties and in to the nineties. Not even the sequels lived up to what is basically the perfect party movie when all is said and done. The movie advertises itself in the title, but while the movie is centered almost completely on a party, it’s also a pretty excellent coming of age comedy.
Admittedly I have a long sentimental history with “House Party,” as I discovered it on network television (WPIX Channel 11, baby) when I was eight years old and fell in love with it from the starting gate. Even edited of its heavy language and brief sex scene, “House Party” is a raucous, funny, and exciting celebration of youth that also showcases some excellent hip hop. The titular House Party is pretty much like the bash at the Delta Chi house in “Animal House,” except it’s stretched in to ninety minutes. Surprisingly it works, because director-writer Reginald Hudlin doesn’t make the party the character, but more a frame work for a lot of the hilarious antics, and sub-plots that hover through some fantastic hip hop music.
Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin were propped up as the big rap duo for the nineties, and “House Party” is basically their launching pad, allowing audiences to grab a clear cut look at their ability to drop a beat, spit fire, and dance with a friendly rivalry that adds a bit of tension through the narrative. While Kid and Play were mainly hip hop stars, they’re also pretty good actors who manage to play versions of themselves consistently struggling to stay out of trouble.
When Kid is caught in a fight during lunch with the school bully Stab and his friends (hip hop group “Full Force”), Kid’s dad “Pop” (the late Robin Harris) refuses to allow him to attend the big party by his friend Play. Although he’s stuck at home, he sneaks out trying to make it to the party on time, all the while “Pop” goes in search of him intending to bring him back home. On the way there, Kid runs in to Stab and his friends, a pair of relentless police, and occasional neighborhood obstacles. Meanwhile, Play is trying to get his party together with the help of his friend and DJ Bilal, and is anticipating the arrival of Sharane and Sydney, two classmates that Kid and Play are trying to score dates with.
Thankfully, Underwood is able to build on what could have been a paper thin narrative and creates a wild and hysterical movie that knows how to balance the comedy and mild drama. “House Party” garners immense replay value thanks to the near infinitely quotable script, and some incredible choreography. Underwood directs the dance sequences brilliantly, even staging probably one of the best dance sequences put to film.
The film hits the high point when Kid is goaded in to demonstrating a dance during “Ain’t My Type of Hype” by Full Force. He prompts pals Sydney and Sharane to intervene challenging him and Play to an epic dance off. Even today the dance off is absolutely amazing pairing excellent editing, brilliant choreography, and an excellent song in what is a trading of dance moves that also works to emphasize the attraction Kid has to Campbell’s Sydney, and vice versa.
Underwood fills the young cast with talented performers and actors like Tisha Campbell (previously seen in “Little Shop of Horrors”), comedian Martin Lawrence, AJ Johnson, as well as bringing on supporting players like and the late John Witherspoon and the aforementioned Harris. The heart of the movie, though, is Martin Lawrence. Lawrence as Bilal, who is the one who helps carry the movie with some of the biggest laughs and best moments by far.
He completely runs the show in the party as an understated puppet master, allowing for some of the best, worst, and most awkward confrontations on the dance floor, including his hysterical seduction of a girl during a slow dance to “Always and Forever.” He also sets up the big dance off between Kid, Play, Sharane, and Sydney, and at the end of the epic rap battle between Kid and Play he grabs the biggest laugh when he awkwardly steals the mic proclaiming: “Anything y’all can do… I-I can do… but I can also do it better.” Martin Lawrence was never funnier.
The movies in the series get progressively worse from the far too dramatic “House Party 2,” and the forgettable third and fourth films. And “Class Act” is just so goddamn embarrassing. Especially as they just lose sight of what Underwood put on film here. “House Party” is that mix of comedy, music, dance numbers, and a premise that’s thin but props up some genuinely engaging characters and relatable scenarios. At the very least Kid and Play were popular for a brief moment in time, prompting their own Saturday morning animated series for kids (seriously) that came and went in a flash.
Even with wannabes and terrible sequels of this shockingly enduring series, “House Party” is that one and done that does everything that it needs to with some timeless hip hop, excellent writing, and cast of genuinely talented performers. It’s a classic that ranks alongside other great party gems like “Animal House,” “Bachelor Party,” and “Superbad.”